Bittersweet memories of Tagore’s Shantiniketan

Chintan Girish Modi

Title of the book: Amader Shantiniketan

Author: Shivani

Translator: Ira Pande

Publisher: Vintage

Year of publication: 2020

Number of pages: 184

Price: Rs. 499 (Hardcover)

Have you ever wondered what it was like to be a student at Shantiniketan when the founder Rabindranath Tagore was alive and engaged in the running of this experimental educational institution? I have, especially after visiting the place in 2017. Schools that begin as a radical departure from mainstream models often change drastically – and understandably so – after their founders die, so I am always curious to learn about how things were in the initial days.

The book Amader Shantiniketan, written by Shivani, and translated by her daughter Ira Pande, gave me some answers to the questions that I had. What did Tagore consider worth teaching and learning? How did he strike a balance between freedom and structure? What did he think of discipline and punishment? To what extent was he able to convey his vision to his colleagues and get them on board? How did the teachers at the school interact with children?

In her introduction to this book, published by Vintage, Pande notes, “This charming memoir was written by Shivani almost 50 years ago and it documents her stay in Shantiniketan from 1935 to 1944.” Shivani was a nom-de-plume used by Gaura Pant (1923-2003), who wrote short stories, novels, travelogues, and an autobiography in Hindi. She was sent along with her two siblings to Shantiniketan at the age of 12, and she spent “nine magical years” there.

Pande, who has worked as a lecturer, editor and columnist, is Shivani’s daughter. She has previously written a book titled Diddi: My Mother’s Voice (2005). Shivani wrote Amader Shantiniketan in Hindi in the early 1960s and it was first published by New Age Publishers, Calcutta. Pande’s translation of it, into English, expands the original volume to include “some of the magnificent tributes she wrote when any of her dear contemporaries passed away.”

In her introduction, Pande lays out the context behind the translation. She thinks that the present moment is a particularly appropriate time for this translation to be published as “the state of education – particularly primary education – has hit such a nadir that it is imperative we breathe fresh life into it.” According to her, Tagore’s greatest contribution was “to introduce a pedagogy that was inspired by the ancient system of the ashram and the gurukul.”

She believes that there are some excellent new schools in India “trying hard to make learning an adventure and a life-altering experience” but these remain confined to “only a privileged few” because they are usually quite expensive. On the other hand, Shantiniketan was devoted to “creating in a remote corner of Bengal a cosmopolitan culture where students came not just from the four corners of India but from China, Japan, Ceylon and even Java and Sumatra.”

She describes it as a “peaceful retreat that remained unshaken by the din and terror of the world beyond.” She credits Tagore for imbuing it with “a spirit that banished all evil and negative energy from its precincts.” She writes, “Our classes were not closed in within walls that shut out the outer world, nor did they have ceilings to close our minds. As we sat under the canopy of the Ashram’s trees, the blue sky spread over us for as far as we could see.”

Reading Amader Shantiniketan, which is narrated from the perspective of a child and a young girl, is a rewarding experience. It records vivid impressions of life at an alternative residential school, with its joys and challenges. This includes recollections of the time that she spent with Tagore, who was addressed as “Gurudev” and affectionate portraits of other teachers.

Every school day at Shantiniketan began and ended with prayer. Shivani writes, “All of us stood, with folded hands and closed eyes, as we sang the hymns he had composed. Never once do I remember anyone trying to jostle someone or giggle or push. Such was the respect Gurudev evoked in all of us that whenever we were in his presence, we became better human beings.” Many of these hymns, she recalls, were set to ragas – Bhairavi, Vibhas or Bhairav.

She warmed up to him soon after she joined Shantiniketan. His personal interest in her well-being helped her – a Kumaoni girl in Bengal – feel comfortable in the new environment. “Are you very homesick?” he asked. She wondered how he knew and decided to follow his advice – “Learn to speak Bangla then, and you will never be homesick.” Tagore himself taught her the Bengali alphabet, guiding her through the basic primer that was called “Sahaj Path.”

In Amader Shantiniketan, Tagore comes across as a man who was gentle, approachable and playful. One of the Bengali sentences in the primer was “Bone thake bagh, gachhe thake pakhi.” It means: The tiger lives in the forest, the bird in the tree. Shivani was so excited about “having mastered this difficult line” that she ended up saying in Bengali “Gachhe thake bagh, bone thake pakhi. This means: The tiger lives on the tree, the bird in the forest.” Tagore could not help asking her, “So, child! Do tigers live in trees in your part of the world?”

These occasional bursts of self-deprecatory humour make the book come alive. Shivani also recounts her experience of being consumed with jealousy when her “reputation” as “the star” of the class was “threatened” by the arrival of a “brilliant” new student. In order to salvage her reputation, she decided to get her poetry assignment ghost-written by Tagore himself.

Alex Aronson, one of Shivani’s teachers had asked students to write a critical appraisal of a John Keats poem. Shivani said to Tagore, “Please write it for me. I don’t want that Tamil boy to do better. Please, please, please, Gurudev.” She writes, “He almost threw me out but when I refused to budge, he dictated a brilliant piece that more than matched the Keats poem.”

Shivani was confident that it would fetch her the highest marks in her class because “a Nobel laureate in literature had written it.” However, she was horrified when the marked assignments were returned. Her competitor had scored 6, whereas she had scored only 4 on a 10-mark assignment. Tagore was tickled by this.  He said, “Don’t tell anyone I wrote it.”

If you have studied at a boarding school or lived in a college or university hostel, you will empathize with Shivani and her classmates. She provides a colourful account of an agonizing phase when “the Ashram kitchen had decided to bury us poor Ashramites under a deluge of aloo-parwal, potatoes cooked with a gourd known in Bengal as potol.” They were being served different preparations made using the same vegetables for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This went on for several days. The students ran out of patience and began to protest. A delegation marched off to Suren da, “who looked after the affairs of the common mess.” They urged him to intervene in the matter but he dismissed their concerns. He said, “You are students of an Ashram…You will have to learn to like simple food and adopt austerity. After all, simple living and high thinking are what you were sent here to learn, isn’t it?”

They felt disappointed but not defeated. They resolved to fight for their “right to decent meals.” They approached Tagore to express their concerns. As you might have guessed, this initiative did relieve the students of their misery. Shivani writes, “To us children, he was a guru, a loving father figure above all…it is hard to believe that this towering world figure could take the time to settle the humble matter of potato and potol overkill for his students.”

I was a bit surprised to learn that Shantiniketan employed cooks and family retainers brought along by some of the students who were homesick for food from their own region. Shivani reveals that, after a cook from Andhra Pradesh was hired, they also got a Gujarati cook, a Sinhalese cook, a Chinese cook, and a Bihari cook. Shivani was overjoyed when Sarju Maharaj, a cook from Chhapra, began to “dish out” arhar dal and baingan ka bharta. He was a musician at heart, so he would quickly finish cooking and then go for music rehearsals.

If this school appears too idyllic to be true, Amader Shantiniketan will also acquaint you with some unflattering aspects. Though Tagore had laid down the rule that there would be “no corporal punishment” at Shantiniketan, it turns out that some of the teachers there disregarded this rule. Shivani seems protective and embarrassed when she writes, “this happened only under the rarest circumstances and generally with the consent of the student himself.”

I found myself wondering: What does it mean for students to consent to corporal punishment? How is this consent sought? What happens if they do not consent? How can an educational institution with a name that means “abode of peace” condone violence? We tend to speak about consent, mostly in the context of sexual harassment, but it is important that we think about it in terms of teacher-student relationships and power equations in schools.

Examine this excerpt from Shivani’s book about her geography teacher, Moshai. She writes, “If you were unable to answer a question he asked, he’d turn those fearful eyes on you and then yank you up by your braid: ‘Devi, did you forget to learn you lesson?’ And it wasn’t just us girls with plaits and braids who suffered this yanking; the boys were pulled up by their hair as well. I remember once a whole tuft of hair came off in his hands after he pulled up one of the boys in our class.” This revelation complicates the nostalgia-tinted mood of this book.

That said, do not let this excerpt prejudice you about Shantiniketan. There is a lot that today’s schools can learn from Tagore’s dream, and how it shaped the lives of children. The reality check is helpful because it reminds us that no school can afford to grow complacent even if it offers students the best in terms of storytelling, music, theatre, poetry and scientific temper.

Since this book foregrounds a child’s experience of her school, it gives teachers an opportunity to reflect on how their students might perceive them. Shivani had two Hindi teachers, and her descriptions of them are in stark contrast to each other. Mohanlal Vajpayee is fondly remembered as “a merry old soul” who taught her ghazals and folk songs. Bhagwati Prasad Chandola, is called “rather forbidding” because he did not tolerate any noise in class.

Shivani writes, “The minute he felt matters were getting out of hand, he snapped shut the book in front of him and retreated into a hurt silence that stretched and stretched until all of us begged for his forgiveness. He used this weapon of silence like a whip to crack over our heads on several occasions and each time, he won.” This description made me think critically of my own passive-aggressive reactions on certain days when I used to be a school teacher.

There is a lot to learn from students. They are the most important stakeholders in education yet their voices are rarely invited into school board meetings and education conferences where important policy decisions about their lives are made. Amader Shantiniketan was written by an adult looking back at her childhood but it does manage to advocate for the child’s voice and vision – whose well-being must remain central to the enterprise of education.

The reviewer is a lifelong learner who enjoys reading, writing and teaching. He can be reached at [email protected].

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